What do many younger patients hospitalized for COVID have in common? Obesity.

It’s no secret that COVID-19 is hitting our older neighbours hardest. We’ve seen how devastating the pandemic has been to long-term care homes and retirement communities. The reasons are relatively clear: elderly people have a wide range of increased risk factors that put them in danger of hospitalization or worse. From pre-existing conditions to compromised immune systems, those over 50 are most vulnerable.

But what about younger people who experience the worst cases of COVID? As scientists look for common threads connecting younger patients who end up at the hospital, a recent study may have found one. Weight.

The data shows that patients below the age of 50 hospitalized for COVID-19 have a mean (or average) Body Mass Index (BMI) of 43.1, while those above 50 have a BMI of 30.1. That’s a big difference. Not only is the gap considerable, but the mean BMI of hospitalized COVID patients actually goes down as they get older. This isn’t the case for other illnesses. So it does look like obesity is one of the key variables that can make the difference between a relatively smooth recovery and a potentially fatal hospitalization.

Earlier this year I wrote about how obesity — and specifically the inflammation it causes — can make COVID worse. Now it seems as though that insight has been reinforced. Of course, there’s much more research that needs to be done on the subject. This new study doesn’t necessarily show why a high BMI can make the disease more dangerous. They do speculate that sleep apnea may be related to certain respiratory complications. It’s a condition quite common in people struggling with obesity.

To me the study points to a simple but critical takeaway: obese patients may be as vulnerable as elderly ones. So if you or someone you love is living with obesity, it’s vital that they take precautions, no matter their age. In other words, treat yourself as though you are high risk, because you very well may be. Wear a mask. Wash your hands regularly. Limit physical interactions to a minimum outside your immediate family.  

But people living with obesity can do more to protect themselves and their families. The same fundamentals that can help them live healthier and happier can be considered part of their pandemic safety regimen. Eating fresh fruits and veggies, taking time to stay physically active — lifestyle changes made now may make a difference if you or your loved one ends up in the hospital.

The pandemic may be with us for some time to come, so it’s never too late to make positive changes. Every step towards better health is another safeguard against the worst effects of the virus.